Photography by Onne van der Wal
I felt it before I heard it: a low-frequency vibration that seemed to originate from the unimaginable depths of Earth. I was in my stateroom, the master in the after section of Freedom, getting ready for dinner aboard. “What the … ?” I said and then peered through the starboard portlight, right into the Plimsoll line of a loaded container ship. The ship’s diesels, each the size of a small cottage, thumped rhythmically as a gaggle of tugs shepherded her progress westward up the Savannah River on the border of South Carolina and Georgia.
Freedom, tied up at the municipal pier a short distance east of the Talmadge Memorial Bridge, rested quietly in the shadow of the Hyatt Regency Savannah adjacent to the city’s historic district. Designed by John Trumpy and built by Mathis Yacht Building in Camden, New Jersey, in 1926, Freedom formed an emotional connective tissue between the 21st and the 18th centuries. Passersby stopped dead in their tracks to admire her elegant Edwardian profile and fine finish.
In 2001, McMillen Yachts Inc. rescued Freedom from a trip to the scrap yard and spent eight years raising funds and overseeing her restoration. She’s one of several antique wooden yachts in the company’s fleet, each one owned by a limited-liability corporation. The partners pay an initial fee to join and agree to a minimum of eight days’ usage per year at a special rate. McMillen manages the yachts and offers each one for charter in New England during the summer, Georgia and South Carolina during the fall and Florida in winter.
Savannah’s waterfront was, and is, the city’s engine room. Commerce shaped it. Many of the buildings were constructed to support the growing shipping industry. By the early 1800s, cotton had become one of the United States’ major exports, and most of it passed through the port of Savannah. This trade accounts for the waterfront’s unusual layout.
Warehouses three to four stories high line the river. Business was done in an upper story, entered from the top of the bluff via short footbridges over Factors Walk. The lower stories received merchandise from the ships. The walk got its name from the men who factored the amount of cotton that arrived from the plantations for sale and distribution. The factors’ offices on the intermediate levels opened onto the walk, which looped around a block of buildings and onto the waterfront. Nowadays, along the walk you’ll find offices, antique shops, art galleries, bookstores, restaurants, bars and the Olde Harbour Inn.
Unlike many other cities founded during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the layouts of which seemed accidental, Savannah’s plan emerged full-blown from the mind of British General James Oglethorpe. He designed the residential area to occupy Yamacraw Bluff, which steeply rises about four stories above the waterfront, and divided the acreage into five symmetrical blocks measuring 60 by 90 feet. Within these blocks, he included 24 public squares, in the early days given to public meetings. These squares, 22 of which remain, still offer shade under the canopies of moss-draped live oak trees, lush grass, beds of vibrant flowers and comfortable benches. In many of the squares, the area is pinned to the city’s substrate by a memorial monolith—a statue of Oglethorpe in Chippewa Square, a statue of Methodist founder John Wesley in Reynolds Square. Although city streets border these squares, none bisects them.
Photographer Onne van der Wal and I met Freedom a short while before lunch on a Sunday in early November. Our skipper, Bill Seiden, welcomed us aboard. After a lunch of chicken salad, we settled into our staterooms and then set off on a tour of the historic district spread out atop the bluff. Music filled the air as we meandered west on West Bryan Street to the eastern end of City Market. Here a three-man band played folk/rock tunes while locals and tourists wandered to and fro, pausing briefly to look into shop windows. Others sat comfortably at tables outside the cafés and restaurants.
Monday morning, we cast off and steamed downriver to the Intracoastal Waterway. We stopped at Palmetto Bluff a short while before noon to look at the ruins of a rice plantation on the grounds of the inn of the same name. All that remains of a once-grand structure are stone steps and the stumps of three columns—hardly worth the stop. So, we lunched aboard on the afterdeck, savoring a seasonal meal of fresh ingredients procured locally.
At this time of year, the marsh grasses along the ICW mimic the color of a low sun: mostly golden with a hint of green. Winds of 20 to 25 knots out of the northeast bent the grass into waves. Tiny islands rose like moles from the flats, a lone tree occasionally appeared on the horizon and we passed under a catenary of wires supported by utility poles growing from the water. A small flock of gulls trailed Freedom’s wake, feeding on the goodies the props brought to the surface.
Beaufort, South Carolina, appeared off our port bow by midafternoon. We’d heard about The Castle and set off to see it. Located on Craven Street, this brick/stucco structure was built between December 1859 and August 1861. It has 23 rooms, 79 windows and eight fireplaces. A massive live oak in the front and one in the back guard this Greek Revival dwelling, which stands today because the Union army needed it for a hospital. When I closed my eyes, I swear I could hear the clatter of ambulance wagon wheels and the moans of wounded soldiers.
At 0600 on our second day of travel, Freedom’s idling diesels signaled the beginning of our run to Charleston. I smelled the coffee, but my biological clock anchored me to the wickedly comfortable berth. Z’s floated above my head; that is, until Capt. Bill engaged reverse and revved the engines to get us off the dock. The prop wash tore me from sleep, my heart racing. By the time I realized what was happening, we were underway. Outside, feathery clouds tinged pink by the still-hiding sun, mixed with the silvery remnants of dawn.
Charleston—so much to see and experience, so little time. We tied up on a face dock at Charleston City Marina, a terrific full-service facility, in time to spend most of the daylight hours on a walkabout. The marina’s shuttle dropped us at the Four Corners of Law at the intersection of Broad and Meeting streets. The area contains St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (ecclesiastical law), Charleston City Hall, the U.S. Post Office and Federal Courthouse, and the Charleston County Courthouse. All of these were built between 1752 and 1896.
Spend a day, spend a lifetime in Charleston. A day will merely make you long to return so you can investigate its historic treasures, and a lifetime still may not be long enough. We stopped at a graveyard established in 1690. The oldest legible stone wore the date 1779. Art, music, theater, great food and friendly natives will forever tempt me to return.
Earl McMillen inherited his passion for restoring wooden boats from his father and in 1992 founded McMillen Yachts to build a profitable business on this passion. A few years later, he had an interesting plan in place that would fund the work each yacht needed. He invited partners—other yachtsmen with a soft spot for classic yachts—to share the ownership of each vessel his company scheduled for restoration. Freedom is the flagship of this shared fleet.
This Trumpy-Mathis fantail yacht measures 104 feet overall, and McMillen found her in 2001 rotting away in the St. Johns River near Jacksonville, Florida. He paid an unbelievable $100 for the hulk and had her transported to his yard in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. After seven years and about $7.5 million, she emerged from the building shed in the condition you see in these photos.
Very little of her original wood remains. Her hull is doubled-planked mahogany, and her arrangement plan was changed subtly to accommodate the upgraded systems. She has five staterooms for a total of 10 guests.